When he left office in January, George W. Bush's popularity plunged. But with Cheney and Rummy back in the headlines, Michael Schaffer says that opinion is shifting once again: The loveable, bumbling Bush of old is back.
Dick Cheney, as everyone now knows, is back. Famously reticent during his eight years in office, the former vice president has been on a media tear, denouncing Barack Obama as soft on terrorism. The reunion tour peaked Thursday with a speech that cable networks carried live—an appearance that the new president was forced to counter with a hastily scheduled terrorism address of his own.
But all the hype about the surly figure who once wielded so much power has distracted attention from another remarkable comeback: the reappearance of the affable, bumbling Texas frat boy in whose White House Cheney once served.
Four months ago, Bush was booed lustily at Obama’s inauguration. Now, he seems kind of harmless again.
George W. Bush, of course, has stayed well out of view since January 20. But as recent news cycles have dragged Cheney and despised former colleagues like Donald Rumsfeld and Douglas Feith back into the spotlight, Bush’s public image has undergone a subtle but important transformation. The arrogant, insecure, entirely unsympathetic second-term Bush—Bush 2.0—has been retired. Instead, the comedians, columnists, and talking heads who shape the discourse have revived an older, more respectful caricature—Bush 1.0, the amiable dunce.
That’s not a depiction most retired statesmen would crave, but for a man who left office with approval ratings nearly as low as Cheney’s, it represents a massive improvement. Four months ago, Bush was booed lustily at Obama’s inauguration; a psychologist’s bestselling book portrayed him as a deeply troubled sadist. Another bestseller cast his administration as a Shakespearean tragedy. No one was joking about “ strategery.” Now, Bush seems kind of harmless again.
Just as it was when Bush first ambled onto the national stage, the revived image of the doofus pol owes a great deal to Will Ferrell and Saturday Night Live. Earlier this year, in his one-man show You’re Welcome, America, Ferrell brought back the goofy Bush he’d perfected on SNL back in the 43rd president’s glory days. When Ferrell returned as guest host for the program’s season finale last weekend, the Cheney media blitz provided an opportunity to resurrect that essentially likeable lunkhead once more.
In the show’s cold opening, a casually dressed Bush sneaks into the studio as Cheney prepares for yet another TV appearance. The sketch was poignant and essentially sad. “I spent eight years with my face out there saying things I barely understood while you were nowhere to be found,” Ferrell’s Bush laments, telling Cheney that he was “the one guy who scares me more than my dad.”
Later, after saying he wishes their relationship had been more like the one between Obama and Joe Biden, the broken Bush is still begging Cheney to be his friend. “If you ever want to Biden it up and get a burger with me, I’m game,” he says. Watching the sketch, it’s hard to remember what motivated so many people to extend middle fingers as Bush’s helicopter departed Obama’s inauguration.
Bush 1.0 wasn’t just limited to SNL. Last Sunday, GQ posted Robert Draper’s blockbuster report that Rumsfeld’s Defense Department regularly put biblical quotations on the cover sheets of daily intelligence memos to the president. The furious reaction to Draper’s story seemed like a trip back to Bush’s charmed early years in the White House, when even his critics portrayed him as a decent but limited man manipulated by venal aides.
“He was cynically playing the religious angle to seduce and manipulate a president who frequently quoted the Bible,” declared Frank Rich in The New York Times. “Donald Rumsfeld used biblical passages on military briefings he gave to President Bush apparently to convince him, the president, of the crusade,” said Chris Matthews on Hardball. “Did the secretary of Defense exploit President Bush’s religiousness to manipulate him and help sell the Iraq war?”
By Wednesday, The Times’ Maureen Dowd was in on the act, reviving her imaginary Cheney-Rumsfeld dialogues, depicting the two friends as manipulative evil geniuses. (That trope dates back to the pre-9/11 days, when the worst she could imagine was having Rummy “slugging back a Scotch with Cheney in the Oval after they've put the Kid to bed.”) So much for recent riffs blaming the country’s plight on the stubborn bully who had to outdo his dad.
Do popular caricatures affect history? In a prescient op-ed in 2004, Jason Zengerle argued that evolving comic portrayals augured bad times for the president. Ferrell had left SNL by then; the new Bush humor was meaner and tougher. It didn’t doom him against John Kerry, but the whiny, unpleasant Bush exemplified by Ferrell’s SNL successor Will Forte was a pretty good indication of where his second-term approval numbers were headed.
Forte had more to work with, alas. By 2004, the jokes about Cheney running the show had ended. Bush was seen as wielding power, a concept that made his goofy schoolyard bravado seem menacing. Now that Bush is again powerless—as Cheney spoke at the American Enterprise Institute, Bush was telling New Mexico high-school seniors about picking up dog poop—the menace has evaporated. Conspiracy theories about the unapologetic Cheney leaving behind moles in the executive branch still make the rounds, but there’s nothing left to hate about the thoroughly discredited ex-president.
Thus all that remains is Bush the doofus—a guy who even hyperpartisan columnists only malign for enabling truly bad apples like Cheney and Rummy. Does the revived image indicate anything about how historians will judge his term? As Ferrell’s character said last weekend: “It’s an awesome plan because history takes forever.”
Michael Schaffer is a writer in Philadelphia. One Nation Under Dog, his book about petmania, the pet industry, and what modern petkeeping says about modern America, is available from Henry Holt. For more visit www.michaelschaffer.net.